Asharq Al-awsat English Middle-east and International News and Opinion from Asharq Al-awsat Newspaper

Weak Links in a Sea of Extremism and Counter-Extremism

Weak Links in a Sea of Extremism and Counter-Extremism

Thursday, 4 April, 2019 - 12:00

The outcome of the US Secretary of state Mike Pompeo’s visit last month to Lebanon was more than expected, despite the ‘theatricals’ long mastered by Lebanese politicians, and the widely known ‘esoterism’ of American diplomacy.

The Lebanese ‘stop’ in the ex-CIA director’s Middle East tour came after several significant regional decisions by President Donald Trump; the most important, no doubt, being moving the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and officially recognizing Syria’s occupied Golan Heights as an ‘Israeli territory’!

Interestingly, the two aforementioned decisions were taken as the Trump administration was reiterating that two central targets in its Middle East strategy were defeating ISIS and confronting Iran.

In spite of the ambiguity surrounding the idea of ‘confronting’ Iran, the escalation of the current Republican US administration marks a shift away from the former Barack Obama’s Democratic administration which treated defeating ISIS as something contradictory to confronting Iran. This was why Obama had effectively sought to make the Tehran regime an ally, and had given it a free hand in the region under the pretext that the most vital battle – indeed, the only battle – was that to get rid of ISIS.

Well, these days Washington is celebrating the defeat of ISIS in Syria at the hands of ‘Syrian Democratic Forces’ the Kurdish-dominated militia that was originally founded, sponsored, and supported (militarily, logistically and politically) while shunning and letting down the real nationalist Syrian opposition.

What we now witness is, no doubt, an ‘achievement’; but what are we to expect next?

At the moment there is a vast Syrian area east of the Euphrates, inhabited by an Arab majority population, rich in oil, and constitutes an invaluable geographic location that makes it a vital segment in Iran’s mega-regional plan. This area is now dominated by two players:

- A militia, which is virtually Kurdish, and which may postpone its secessionist plans temporarily, but would most likely keep them alive

- A regime that is going through a period of having to make difficult decisions between being subservient to Tehran or becoming a client of Moscow

The presence of ISIS in that part of Syria confused the situation for a few years. But, perhaps, this was all along the true aim of the powers that aided and abetted ISIS - directly or indirectly-, worked hard to exploit it at various decisive crossroads in the Syrian Crisis, and use it as a cover for its maneuvers and changing priorities.

For the Obama administration, ISIS was the excuse for aligning with Tehran.

For Ankara, it was a cover that helped Turkey enter the Syrian arena as an influential player speaking for ‘political Sunni Islam, and posing as an indispensable agent qualified to check and control ‘extremists’.

For Moscow, it was a reason to save a despotic Syrian regime whose people rose against, and hence, maintain Russian interests in Syria.

For Tehran, it was a golden opportunity to ‘present its credentials’ both as a friend and as a partner in the ‘fight against terrorism’, while it accelerated the process of annexing Syria to its ‘Highway to the Mediterranean’ connecting Tehran and Beirut through Baghdad.

ISIS was all that and more…

It was a ‘requirement’. Indeed, most of those claiming that their priority was to fight, never dealt with it as their top target, simply because it was the excuse, the cover, the reason, and the opportunity.

Now, however, it has been finished off – at least, inside Syria – because it has outlived its usefulness. In light of this development, the next step in Syria would most likely come from Washington. This would gain extra importance, with the increased tension between Moscow and Tehran, the continued disharmony between Washington and Ankara, and the almost complete duplication between Trump’s policies and those of Israel’s Likud.

This is the tense arena where Lebanon finds itself these days. Realistically, it is a prisoner of Iran’s political and military hegemony and is suffering a socio-economic crisis aggravated by Hezbollah’s policies and military adventures. Furthermore, it shares a border with Syria, making it a victim of the complicated problem of Syrian refugees who were displaced through intentional demographic change. It also shares borders with Israel, which in addition to old demographic and water resources calculations is now in open dispute over the division of offshore oil and gas of the eastern Mediterranean.

Western governments, led by Washington, are well aware that the Lebanese political ‘governing’ setup is a fragile and interest-based temporary team. Its political rhetoric merely aims at gaining time and postponing deadlines in the absence of easy choices.

During his visit to Lebanon Secretary Pompeo met several Lebanese leaders. My guess is that he knew beforehand what he would hear; and later, was convinced that what they say in the open differs from what they express behind closed doors. On the other hand, I believe that the wise among Lebanon’s politicians also knew enough what already Washington knows about them, their circumstances, and what it expects from them. Thus, in the absence of firm American positions regarding the future map of the Middle East, it was natural that any wise politician in a small and fragile country, like Lebanon, would keep his/her options open.

Moreover, it is clear to both the Lebanese and the rest of the Arabs, that there are two extremist offensives gathering pace in the Middle East, and each benefitting from the other:

- The first is the Iranian offensive, with all its expansionist military and demographic displacement contents, launched in the name of Islam, and attempting to outbid the Arabs on the issues of protected Islamic shrines in Palestine and “liberating Jerusalem”.

- The Second, in the opposite direction, is the almost daily gratuitous presents gifted by Washington to Iran’s fake propaganda in every shape and form.

There is nothing more precious to Tehran’s propaganda organs than weakening the credibility of any rational and realistic Arab approach to a just and permanent peace. Unfortunately, this is exactly what Washington is doing through fully endorsing Netanyahu’s policies even against the Israeli ‘generals’ bloc’ which is trying to end a ‘state of demagoguery’ long accused of corruption, and well-versed in escaping forward albeit at a high human and political cost.

We do understand that US sanctions against Iran have been proven effective for some time. Proof of that has been Tehran’s political, security, and economic maneuvers with its Arab neighbors as it feels it is strong enough to impose its partnership on them.

However, it is high time Washington political strategists realize that insisting on confronting Iran’s extremism while supporting Israeli extremism is a highly risky strategy.

Other opinion articles

Editor Picks